Robert Mugge




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Gospel According to Al Green - A Robert Mugge Film

Now on DVD
from Acorn Media!


Click Here to View: Extended TrailerDirector's Commentary
People Get ReadyLet's Stay TogetherFree At Last
Gospel MedleyWhen the Gates Swing Open


Al Green and Robert Mugge at the October 25, 1985 American theatrical premiere of
GOSPEL ACCORDING TO AL GREEN at the Coolidge Corner in Brookline, MA.  Photo by Justin Freed.
The Last Soul Singer in America!
Words and Music by the Rev. Al Green
A Film by Robert Mugge


February 21-22, 2009

Two '80s Film Flashbacks

Sonny Rollins and Al Green Documentaries, New on DVD

By Will Friedwald

When Robert Mugge's documentaries "Sonny Rollins Saxophone Colossus" (1986) and "Gospel According to Al Green" (1984) were made, they were intended as a permanent record of two seminal musicians at a very specific point in their careers. The central figures themselves had axes to grind: Sonny Rollins -- and even more so, his manager and wife, Lucille -- wanted to silence the critics and fans who insisted that his contemporary work was inferior to his classic albums of the '50s and '60s; Al Green was compelled to explain to the world why he gave up singing pop music and devoted his life to spreading God's word.

Today, those particular points don't matter as much as they once did. Mr. Rollins is treated as a living legend, whose every performance, young and old, is rightfully cherished; Mr. Green himself made another career change and since the mid-1990s has been performing secular as well as sacred music, knowing full well that audiences will accept him no matter what he sings.

But these two films, newly released on DVD by Acorn Media, hold up well as vital profiles of their subjects at turning points in their lives, each combining a concert film with a journalistic backstory. They also remind us how much the genre has changed in the past two decades, a period of ever-shortening attention spans. When Mr. Mugge made these documentaries (both of which exceed 1½ hours in length, with not a minute wasted), it didn't seem like too much to ask an audience to watch a man play a sax for 10 minutes straight.

"Saxophone Colossus," which takes its title from Mr. Rollins's celebrated 1956 album, begins with the musician talking about how he prepares for a performance; although it isn't exactly through "meditating," he does drop that word, and both of Mr. Mugge's films are extended meditations on one man's contributions to music.

The filmmaker and his camera crew capture Mr. Rollins in performance at two events. At the first, he and the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra play the "Concerto for Tenor Saxophone and Orchestra," Mr. Rollins's collaboration with the Finnish arranger-composer-conductor Heikki Saramanto. In the accompanying commentary, the director explains that he thought the work might become a jazz classic on the level of John Coltrane's suite "A Love Supreme." Instead, the concerto -- though it's a fascinating piece, which includes one movement that sounds inspired by Aaron Copland and another by Caribbean music -- sank into obscurity. It has never been issued on CD.

The other concert included in "Saxophone Colossus" is an August 1986 date in a rock quarry converted into a performance space. Mr. Mugge's intention was to show the high level at which Mr. Rollins performs even at a bread-and-butter gig with his regular working band (including trombonist Clifton Anderson and bassist Bob Cranshaw, who are still with him today).

Less than a half hour in, Mr. Rollins plays a short, unaccompanied medley of several themes, including "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" and "How Are Things in Glocca Morra," and then jumps off the stage. Apparently, he was frustrated by the sound of his tenor sax -- which had changed since it was relacquered. He was intending to head into the outdoor audience, and to play among them like a strolling musician. He hits the ground with such force that his heel bone snaps, and he lies down on the stone, flat on his back. Then, still horizontal, he begins to play "Autumn Nocturne," with neither the audience nor the band realizing that a bone is actually broken in his foot. In the days before tiny video cameras and cellphone photography, this was an extraordinary slice of reality to capture on film.

* * *

"Gospel According to Al Green" is driven by the irresistible, almost aggressive charisma of its central figure (who won two more Grammy Awards earlier this month). Not only does the Rev. Al Green exude the same energy when singing of love for a woman or love for Jesus, but he acknowledges no difference between preaching in a Baptist church, addressing an audience in a night club, or being interviewed by Mr. Mugge in a recording studio. Whether a camera crew or a crowd of thousands is listening to him, he speaks as if he's talking to his most intimate friend.

His recounting of hearing the word from God that he must be born again is compelling enough to make even a nonbeliever get down on his knees. The story of how a vengeful ex-lover attacked him by throwing a cauldron of boiling hot grits on him, and then shot herself, is by turns both comic and tragic. There's a touching moment when his once and future producer, Willie Mitchell, tells of how their partnership ended when Mr. Green stopped singing pop songs. It is ironically underscored by their 1972 hit "Let's Stay Together."

But "Gospel According to Al Green," like "Saxophone Colossus," is ultimately driven by the music, which we get to hear at its proper length. Mr. Green describes gospel music as having "an electricity that's got nothin' to do with sex," but there's an overt sensuality to his performance here -- whether describing romantic or spiritual ecstasy. He makes it clear that both come from the same place in the heart.

Mr. Friedwald writes about jazz and other music for the Journal.

Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal © 2009 Dow Jones & Company.  All rights reserved.



February 26, 2009

Full of Fire

A classic documentary captures Al Green in the pulpit and onstage.

By Chris Herrington

The first time I interviewed Al Green, on the phone, several years ago, the legendary soul singer took me by surprise. I'd been a huge fan of his music for years, but not only had I never spoken to him, I had never seen or heard him interviewed.

Green's speaking manner was nearly as idiosyncratic and dynamic as his one-of-a-kind vocals. Not only was his normal conversation sing-songy, he would break, literally, into song. Asking a question about his music's connection to Motown, Green burst into Temptations and Smokey Robinson songs. Throughout the interview, when songs were mentioned, he would occasionally dip into them, weaving bits of singing in and out of the conversation.

Had I seen filmmaker Robert Mugge's 1984 documentary Gospel According to Al Green, I might have been better prepared. In that film, Green is first seen in his home studio, being interviewed while plucking an electric guitar. "I love you with all my heart," he sings, picking out a few notes and making the cliché soar. A few minutes later, Green tells the story of playing a show in Dallas, early in his career, and not getting paid. Driving back home to Michigan, a girlfriend with him, he sings a new song he'd written, "Tired of Being Along." Strumming the guitar the whole time, Green interrupts his own story periodically to sing the song's opening verse or chorus.

"The girl said, 'Would you please put that thing down? You're driving me nuts,'" Green remembers with a grin. "But I was gone on that song."

Green's way of speaking is almost fey — downright cutesy — as stylized as his singing. In the mid-'70s, critic Robert Christgau — a big fan — wrote of Green's speech: "The man crinkles up his voice as if he's trying out for Sesame Street; he drawls like someone affecting a drawl; he hesitates and giggles and murmurs and swallows his words."

Green is having a very good year. His 2008 album Lay It Down, was the best of a fine trio of recent secular "comeback" albums. A few weeks ago, the album garnered Green two Grammys on a night where he dueted with fellow Mid-Southerner Justin Timberlake on his classic single "Let's Stay Together."

Soon after Green's big Grammy moment, the long-unavailable Gospel According to Al Green received a 25th-anniversary DVD release, allowing viewers a remarkably intimate glimpse of Green in the days not long after he'd essentially abandoned secular music for the pulpit.

Mugge is a documentarian who specializes in making films about American music, including such high-profile works as Deep Blues, Saxophone Colossus (a film about jazz great Sonny Rollins re-released concurrently with Gospel According to Al Green), and the post-Katrina New Orleans Music in Exile. Gospel According to Al Green was one of Mugge's first films, but the director apparently sees it as a template for his subsequent work. In a new interview that is one of the new edition's special features, Mugge says, "In many respects, Gospel According to Al Green is exactly what I want my films to be: It captures a musical artist at the peak of his powers; it develops many themes related to traditional American music; and it presents a dramatic story."

That story is part of pop-music lore: how Green, a journeyman Michigan soul singer with Southern roots, was discovered by Memphis producer Willie Mitchell at a Texas club and lured to Tennessee; how Green and Mitchell worked to perfect a soul sound that bridged the divide between '60s grit and '70s silk; the dramatic incident where Green was scalded with hot grits by an upset lover, who then killed herself; how Green had a religious awakening, abandoning pop music for the pulpit in the form of his own Memphis church: the Full Gospel Tabernacle on Hale Road.

This story has never been told with such intimacy as in Gospel According to Al Green. Green was candid on these subjects in his 2000 autobiography Take Me to the River, but here you hear the words in Green's amazing voice and you can watch, rapt no doubt, as he performs his life story with the same charisma as he performs his great songs.

Gospel According to Al Green captures its subject in three primary settings: alone in his home studio, onstage at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., and, finally, in the pulpit at Full Gospel Tabernacle. The only other subjects who get much screen time are Willie Mitchell, interviewed at Royal Studio, where most of Green's greatest work was recorded, and the pop critic Ken Tucker, who calls Green a synthesis or the soft, wounded style of Smokey Robinson and grit of Wilson Pickett.

Originally, Mugge says in his DVD extra interview, there were other outside talking heads in the film and the director had included himself as an on-screen subject. That material didn't test well in early screenings: The audience just wanted to watch Green talking, singing, and preaching — performances all.

At Bolling, Green stretches out Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" and goes deep into the gospel standard "Nearer My God to Thee" while walking off the stage and into the crowd. In the studio, he's riveting, talking candidly about the "grits" incident and his middle-of-the-night religious awakening. Most memorable is his description of his impulsive purchase of his church.

"You know how I wrote the check?" Green asks, reaching into the breast pocket of his suit and pulling out his glasses. "Out of a little book I had in my pocket. Just a little pad book. Not even a real, real, real book. Just a little pad book.

"I wrote the check right on out for the whole building," Green says, running his fingers over his glasses as if they were the checkbook. "And signed it," he says, waving his hand dismissively. "Through with that. 'Cause see, now, Sunday I'm preaching. That's all."

Mugge holds back on Green's church service until the final third of the film, when he surprisingly gives Green in the pulpit roughly half an hour of uncommented-on screen time, where you notice how little difference there is between Green's three public sides: speaking, singing, and preaching. Green is, here, improvisational, his voicing ranging between speech and song.

"This is a film about love," Mugge says. "About the connections between soul music and gospel, and about a guy who flew too close to the sun, got his eyeballs burned, and has been singing ever since with fire coming out of his mouth."

And to borrow a title of one of Green's many terrific '70s albums, he's nothing if not full of fire here.

Reprinted with permission from The Memphis Flyer


THE CITY PAPER (Nashville)

February 3, 2009

OnDVD: New releases spotlight Green, Rollins

By Ron Wynn

Acclaimed director Robert Mugge has excelled as a music documentarian over the past three decades. His productions have profiled both famous and obscure performers in numerous genres. The long list of exceptional Mugge productions include a pair of 1980s works on Al Green and Sonny Rollins that have just been reissued on DVD.

Gospel According to Al Green and Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus (both Acorn Media) represent the finest filmed presentations ever done on these two giants of American music, and each blend insights and splendid, rare performance footage in a manner that distinguishes them from basic concert or documentary items.

Al Green had made the transition from soul matinee idol to hard-working minister by 1984, the year Mugge originally filmed Gospel According to Al Green. He talks extensively about the events that led to his abandoning that soul career, and also discusses the problems he experienced in establishing and maintaining his Memphis church.

For those skeptical about Green’s conversion, the DVD includes a marvelous example pastor Green, as he presents a rich sermon that combines biblical references, personal stories and occasional song inserts. The package also has several scenes from his church services, which sometimes extend for hours on Sunday mornings and afternoons.

But the DVD also showcases the masterful Green secular style, with excerpts from performances featuring magnificent renditions of classic hits like “Let’s Stay Together” as well as equally strong gospel numbers such as “Amazing Grace.”

Green addresses the demands of both stardom and the ministry with equal fervor, explaining that each demands an intensity and commitment that can be draining and debilitating.

Through a nearly 90-minute interview, viewers see sides of Green he’s never before or since revealed. The set is completed with the inclusion of the original theatrical trailer and Mugge’s reflections on the project.

As for Sonny Rollins, he began playing the saxophone as an 11-year-old and was working with Thelonious Monk before he was 18. His soaring, relentless solos and integrity as a performer have made him a beloved figure.

Rollins also has often walked away from the music scene when he felt his playing was getting stale or predictable, even at times when his work was extremely popular. Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus was filmed in 1986, only a year after he’d started recording and performing again following almost nine years out of the spotlight.

His DVD includes far more comments and conversation from Rollins (who’s never sought the spotlight) about his background and interests than usual. He goes into very specific detail about the importance of spirituality in his life and music, while dissecting his approach to improvisation and performance.

A song’s melody has always been what has most attracted Rollins to a composition, and his ability to hear alternative directions in a tune while exploring it and his experiments with song structure are displayed in wonderful footage of him teaming with a Japanese symphony orchestra in Tokyo and a smaller group in New York.

While not extensively or exclusively a concert film, Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus amply examines the Rollins musical method, while also giving fans vital insight into his interests and life away from the bandstand.

Reprinted with permission from The City Paper - Nashville's Online Source for Daily News



December 24, 2008

Gospel According to Al Green and Saxophone Colossus: The All Movie Guide Review

By Nathan Southern

This January will witness a very special event – the DVD reissue of two of the most brilliant music documentaries of the past quarter century, both by the gifted Robert Mugge: 1984’s Gospel According to Al Green, and 1986’s Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus. Acorn Media is handling the rereleases, with a number of supplements including directorial reflections by Mugge; these welcome additions do enrich the films, but more prominent is the supreme craftsmanship of both works themselves. I took a fresh look at these two modern classics over the weekend and felt particularly struck by how well they succeed in completely different arenas and with completely distinct voices – a testament to Mugge’s versatility and adaptability as a craftsperson.

Shot at the tail end of 1983, Gospel According to Al Green went into production about a decade after Green’s famous conversion to Pentecostalism, and six years after his purchase of the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis and his temporary refusal to perform any of his soulful R&B hits again. Mugge intercuts several elements within the film: a shockingly candid and revelatory interview with Green, an impromptu recording session of the chart-topper “Let’s Stay Together” (with Green agreeing to set aside his secular music ban for the sake of Mugge’s cameras), a concert by Green at the Bolling Air Force Base and Noncommissioned Officer’s Club in honor of 1984 Black History Week, and a sermon at Green’s church.

Especially in its early stages, the documentary pulls its power from Green’s almost hypnotic and mesmeric music, which exerts an astonishing level of emotional pull toward the onscreen and offscreen audiences; few cinematic outings have captured this aspect of gospel music so beautifully. (Compare the film, for example, to other gospel documentaries that interrupt the flow and emotional throes of the music with frequent cutaways). Mugge avoids that error by courageously letting the audience observe the concert portions for extended periods of time (thus wisely trusting in his subject matter) and allowing the music to build, to such a degree that its overall emotional structure begins to mirror the emotional structure of one of Green’s Willie Mitchell-produced songs as described in an onscreen interview with Mitchell – a gradual build to crescendo: “I think a song should be like climbing a mountain… Start at the bottom and climb to the top.” Mugge employs a like narrative structure in the documentary itself.

Via the interviews with Green, Mugge also provides intimate observations of a fascinating character – it’s possible that we’ve never before witnessed an interview subject so animated by torrents of histrionic emotion – to such a degree that it pushes Green beyond the point of eccentricity, and makes him a source of endless curiosity. The film doesn’t shy away from the possibility that Green enjoys being a spectacle in and of himself, and Mugge, in fact, places his camera at exactly the right places to observe the contradictions of this superstar, who on the one hand projects very sincere devotion to his audiences and a very sincere belief in Christian music and the Christian gospel, and on the other hand grows visibly disinterested on those brief occasions when someone else takes center stage. Meanwhile, the film’s interview portions enable Green’s fascinating personal story to emerge and build, and the documentary achieves greatest profundity by establishing a link between the notorious crisis that pushed the singer to the edge (when a distraught girlfriend dumped boiling hot grits on him in the shower, then shot herself) and the reliance on a spiritual anchor as a coping device. Mugge ingeniously juxtaposes Green’s recollections of the “incident” with a concert performance of “Amazing Grace” featuring cathartic monologues that witness Green openly dealing, before an audience, with the tumult that befell him years earlier. More broadly, the film serves as a profound reflection on the link, historically, between secular soul music and African-American gospel music, and the extent to which the former is often used as a tool to enervate and shape the latter. Sans commentary, the film probes this intra-genre area gracefully, yet wordlessly.

Above all else, the film witnesses one of the greatest of all soul singers at the peak of his abilities and provides marvelous entertainment.

That can also be said of 1986’s Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus, though the emotional texture and narrative structure of this opus stand alone. Hard bop tenor saxophonist Rollins, regarded by many as the world’s greatest jazz improviser, made history by adapting the jazz stylings of Charlie Parker to his chosen instrument, but by the mid-late 1980s, Rollins’s wife-turned-manager, Lucille, felt concerned that his star might be fading, despite the fact that he was performing more brilliantly, at that point in his life, than at any other time. Mugge’s film was thus designed as a vehicle to reassert Rollins’s greatness, and on that level alone it succeeds wonderfully. The writer-director divides the bulk of the film between four elements: candid interviews with Rollins and his wife, an August 1986 performance with a small jazz ensemble headlined by Rollins at Saugarties New York’s Opus 40, a series of reflections on Rollins by jazz critics Ira Gitler, Gary Giddins and Francis Davis, and – as the centerpiece – the only official filmed record of Rollins’s Concerto for Tenor Saxophone and Orchestra, Movements 1, 3, 4, 5 and 7, mounted and performed in Japan in May of ’86.

Rollins, like Green, is fascinating to watch, and though he’s as complex a subject as one can imagine, we never feel the sense of any emotional turmoil surrounding the musician that we do from Green – only open, free, and unbridled joy that extends to the film itself. (Just witness, for example, Sonny’s rapturous performance of “Don’t Stop the Carnival” at the Opus 40 that wraps the film). Structurally, Mugge approaches Rollins as a subject by using the various interview and concert materials to create a kind of interwoven narrative tapestry, that builds to an impressionistic portrait of the musician. By the time that the final sequence rolls around, we’ve gained a myriad of insights into this legendary musician yet sense that there are still many mysteries about him to be uncovered – the film succeeds in building our curiosity and fascination. Musically, the very best that can be said about Saxophone Colossus is that a myriad of melodic complexities play out onscreen (including the Japanese sequence – a groundbreaking fusion of fixed symphonic structures and free jazz saxophone riffs), but one can approach the material with only the most rudimentary knowledge of what jazz improvisation entails, and actually learn the fundamentals from watching Sonny’s performance. Mugge seems intent on repeatedly filming Rollins from low angles, to enforce the musician’s stature as a jazz giant (which partially explains the title); with another subject, that might seem cliched, but the filmmaker understands that the level of performance on display in the film and the visual approach can do nothing but validate one another.

Reprinted with permission from the All Movie Blog